A month after President Trump's election, a driver at the corner of 40th and Market streets told third-year Penn Law student Akbar Hossain to "go back to [his] country."
Hossain, a Muslim American, responded with an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer where he wrote, "This is my country and I'm not going anywhere." Hossain added in the article that he welcomed all readers to meet with him if they wanted to learn more about his background.
"The seat across from me at the coffee shop will always be open. That's my promise," he wrote.
A year later, and amid a nationwide rise in hate crimes against Muslims, Hossain has received over 300 responses to his article and had dozens of coffee chats with people to discuss Islam.
“There is a vacuum of information that is just not there, that the media continues to fill with misinformation,” Hossain said. “That’s where I think the coffee dates can help.”
Hossain, who immigrated to the United States when he was nine years old, attended Franklin & Marshall College for his undergraduate degree on a full-ride scholarship. He later received both the Truman Scholarship and the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship before coming to Penn to pursue his law degree.
Hossain’s family was originally from Bangladesh, but moved to Saudi Arabia for about five years before applying for a United States Diversity Visa Lottery in 2001. Over 13 million people applied for the lottery in that same year, but Hossain and his family were selected as one of 88 families from Saudi Arabia to win entry into the United States.
Hossain said his family was excited to begin a new life stateside, but quickly had to shift their expectations. The Hossains arrived on Sept. 9, 2001, just two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After the attack, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States jumped from 28 in 2010 to 481 the next year.
As a Muslim growing up in Norristown, Pa., Hossain said he recalls being bullied for his last name and his country of origin, but added that he thinks he was still lucky, compared to some of his peers.
“I surround myself with people who are accepting, but I don’t think that’s true for the majority of Muslims that live in the United States,” Hossain said. “They are living in a microscope in terms of how they act.”
As a law student, Hossain has worked to apply his expertise to causes he feels passionate about.
“Akbar is a committed advocate, and appreciates the importance of supporting legal advocacy,” Penn Law professor Sara Paeoletti, who worked with Hossain in the Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic, said in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. She praised his ability to “loo[k] for other outlets to help shift the messaging around immigration.”
Hossain serves on the Young Friends Committee for Knowledge is Power Philadelphia, providing services to the Philadelphia charter school network. He is also one of seven members on the Norristown planning commission, where he works to create businesses that provide support for minority residents like other Muslim Americans.
While Hossain said his dream job is to run the Office of Immigrant Affairs for a local government, he will be joining a private law firm in Philadelphia as an associate after graduation. He said he hopes to continue to work with those seeking asylum and refugee resettlement issues in a pro-bono capacity.
"It's just about being a good person," Hossain said. "The rest will follow."
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